Parashat B’har Sinai: The Task of Peace-Building Plus Statement from Rabbinical Assembly & USCJ Condemn Terrorist Attack in Buffalo, NY

Parashat B’har Sinai: The Task of Peace-Building

delivered by Rabbi Sacks on May 20, 2022

We are nearing the conclusion of the book of Leviticus. The book, especially in the latter half, makes clear that extraordinary action is called for as part of our people’s calling to be kadosh l-d-nai E-l-hecha, “holy unto HaShem your G!d.” So, we read tomorrow, every seven years, the Land must have its Sabbaths of rest from cultivation. Every seven-times-seven years, there must be a jubilee year, in which Israelites shall neither reap nor sow. They shall “proclaim release[1] throughout the Land to all the inhabitants thereof,” provide for the release and return of all lands to their original owners, and—seemingly the simplest of all these injunctions but, to my mind, the most difficult to enact—“not wrong one another, but fear (or revere) your G!d.”[2]

Tomorrow during Torah study, we shall do a deep dive into this command to not wrong another. That command and its accompanying rationale, “for I am HaShem your G!d,” recalls the very heart of the “Holiness Code,” the heart of which we read last week. There the Torah commands us not to bear a grudge or take vengeance but instead to “love your neighbor as yourself, for I am HaShem.”[3] That verse in turn echoes the overarching message at the start of last week’s reading: “You shall be holy, for I, HaShem your G!d, am holy.”[4]

One can understand these admonitions of the Torah in several ways. In part it depends upon whether we understand the command of yareita as meaning “to fear” or “to revere.” If understood as “fear,” then perhaps we are meant to read G!d’s words as a threat: “You had better be holy, because I am holy, and I want you to be like Me in this way; and if you fail to do it, I will hold you accountable.” Thus, “do not wrong one another, but fear your G!d.”

However, if we understand yareita as “reverence.” then G!d, in effect, invites us:

I HaShem am holy, and because of your connection to Me—the fact that I created you in My image, have given you these words of Torah, have joined with you in an eternal covenant to make My world more just and compassionate, and have agreed to dwell among you—because of all of that, you have the opportunity (and, therefore, the obligation) to be holy, too.

 I believe this reflects the text better, because, for me, the point is not fear but reverence, awe, and respect for the weight of the responsibility we bear. Israel’s holiness is not intrinsic, genetic, a given. Rather, it lies in what we do, how we treat others, the kind of society we build, and the kind of people we are and continue to become.

My first truly great Talmud teacher and colleague, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, wrote an important book, titled From Enemy to Friend,[5] which helps us to unpack this admonition to not wrong others. In calling on us to move from enemy to friend, and to be guided by “Jewish Wisdom in the Pursuit of Peace,” Rabbi Eilberg reminds us yet again of the Torah’s profound and difficult lesson that we cannot hope to make the world right unless we act to right ourselves. We have no chance of living without grudges or vengeance if we are afraid, unsatisfied with our lot, or always on the lookout for ways of gaining advantage over others. If we don’t want to rely entirely on G!d, “who makes peace in the heavens” to make peace on earth as well, but are ready to accept the responsibility of doing our part in that effort, then we had best heed Rabbi Eilberg’s warning that the work is hard and will not come as a matter of course.

Particular habits of mind and behavior are required. Rabbi Eilberg’s goal is “to explore this inner work of peace-building,” which means nothing less than “to transform an enemy into a friend, to move from hatred to caring, from suspicion and fear, beyond tolerance, to embrace of the other.”[6]

The most often-cited modern Jewish thinker in Rabbi Eilberg’s volume is Martin Buber, famous for his emphasis on the “life of dialogue” and the relationship between “I and Thou.” The personal experiences with peace-building that Eilberg recounts most often involve dialogue with Muslims and Palestinians. She also offers cautionary tales of American Jewish communities torn asunder by heated disagreements over Israel. Perhaps because the focus of so much of the book, as of this week’s Torah reading, is relations among Jews, and between Jews and others in the Land of Israel, Eilberg warns the reader ahead of time that some of us might be prone to resist or take strong objection. She cautions:

…there may be moments when you notice emotion rising in you: anger, horror, even outrage. Perhaps you already feel angry about things someone said or have been tempted to slam a door shut. When you notice such reactions arising, I invite you to conduct your own experiment in compassionate listening.[7]

This technique of attention and self-restraint is something we might learn to practice, and one that seems essential to the work of peace-building.

Eilberg works hard to find a balance between a language of aspiration that tries to stretch the reader beyond our usual ways of thinking and acting, and ideals so out of reach for most of us that we feel comfortable not taking Eilberg’s message to heart.

I think the Torah seeks the same balance, and nowhere more than in this week’s portion. It is one thing (hard enough!) to observe the Sabbath, and quite another to allow the Land to observe its Sabbaths. The regulations surrounding the jubilee have for good reason seemed daunting to commentators—and Jews seeking to observe them—for centuries.

But I keep coming back to that simple command not to “wrong one another, but revere–or fear–your God.” Since reading Rabbi Eilberg’s book, I read this command in light of her recurrent question to us, asked of us whenever we turn away from dialogue. That question is “What are you afraid of?” There is, of course, a lot to be afraid of in this world.

  • Some people do not want peace; they prefer chaos.
  • Some people do not know or trust their own convictions, and so feel inadequate to the task of conversation and dialogue.
  • Some people feel they have too much at stake in how they have postured and presented themselves, and would feel too much shame in modifying their opinions even slightly, so resist hearing other truths.
  • Some enemies cannot be won over, and if we do not resist them—at times with force—the result will not be peace or friendship, but increased violence and injustice.

Yet some conversations are worth having, even if they lead to arguments, and even if, heaven forfend, they lead to the loss of a friend.

That stated, Rabbi Eilberg adds a caution, which is: Don’t ever give yourself carte blanche to avoid the hard work of peace-building. Always have the honesty to ask if you are avoiding it, not because it is too dangerous, but because it is too difficult.

Rabbi Eilberg knows the deeper truth of Leviticus and our entire tradition: The command “to not wrong another” is not about avoidance of others. Rather, it is about engagement with them. The only path toward the aspirational hope of not wronging others is the path of conversation and presence with others, so that we can avoid wronging another, and, surely, avoid making an enemy rather than a friend. For this, we need to entertain the kinds of encounters that transform strangers into friends, that move us from resentments and negativity to caring, even closeness; from suspicion and fear, beyond tolerance, to embrace of the other.”

May this be the path we tread.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] Older translations have “liberty.” This older translation is what appears on the Liberty Bell, now housed at the Liberty Bell Center in Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia.

[2] Leviticus 25:1-17.

[3] Leviticus 19:18.

[4] Leviticus 19:2.

[5] Eilberg, Rabbi Amy. From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Ibid., p. 160. I slightly adapted this quote to fit the context of this d’var Torah.

 

Rabbinical Assembly & USCJ Condemn Terrorist Attack in Buffalo, NY

Posted on: Tuesday May 17, 2022

New York, NY – Following the attack in Buffalo, New York, in which ten people were killed by a white supremacist gunman at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international association for Conservative/Masorti rabbis, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), issued the following statement:

“Along with all Americans who value human life, the Rabbinical Assembly and USCJ express our utter horror at the unspeakable act of white nationalist terrorism against a Black neighborhood in Buffalo.

“We offer our deepest condolences and support to all those impacted by the attack and reiterate our fierce condemnation of white supremacy and gun violence. We commit, along with our institutional partners:

  • To raise our voices against the profoundly dangerous theory of Great Replacement, which endangers Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, as well as Jews, since white supremacist theory places Jews at the center of their grossly distorted ideology.
  • To continue to educate our communities about the interwoven nature of racism and antisemitism; and
  • Actively recognize that an attack on any of us is an attack on all of us.

“In 2016, the RA spoke out against mass shootings, as it has very many times, and took a strong stand in favor of gun control by passing a Resolution on American Gun Violence. Seeing yet another explosion of racist hate, the RA and USCJ unequivocally call upon lawmakers to take all available measures to ensure the safety of the public, to limit the availability of guns, and to condemn white supremacy in all its many forms. As tradition reminds us, ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’ (Leviticus 19:16).”

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